The Washington Post

Virginia defensive backs hope to bounce back against Duke

Maryland wide receiver Deon Long hauled in a key fourth-quarter catch against Virginia defensive backs Anthony Harris and DreQuan Hoskey (22). (Ricky Carioti/Washington Post)

Though he prides himself on having a short memory, Virginia safety Anthony Harris can’t help but be frustrated about the 47-yard, fourth-quarter “prayer” that has haunted the Cavaliers since their 27-26 loss at Maryland last week.

Maybe he could have located Maryland wide receiver Deon Long better, but otherwise Harris was in good position to intercept the underthrown pass by backup quarterback Caleb Rowe with the Terrapins facing third and 22. He tried to attack the ball at its highest point, just like coaches have been preaching. He even had cornerback Drequan Hoskey running alongside Long, a second defender with the ability to break up the pass

But Harris and Hoskey both mis-timed their jumps and missed out on a game-changing play that likely would have propelled the Cavaliers to a road victory, a trend that has begun to catch up with the Cavaliers in recent weeks.

“That’s a play that we gotta make,” said safeties coach Anthony Poindexter, who also lamented two first-half passes that tipped off Virginia’s hands and turned into Maryland completions. “We just got to make the plays when they come to us.”

Through the first four games of this season, Virginia’s secondary allowed opposing quarterbacks to connect on just 38.1 percent of their throws, one of the lowest marks in the nation. But in losses to Ball State and Maryland, the Cavaliers have given up 678 passing yards, and it has prompted Coach Mike London to explore whether his secondary will become the latest position group to experience personnel changes.

This week, Virginia’s updated depth chart indicated that starting free safety Brandon Phelps, a former All-Met from Damascus, is now battling for playing time with senior captain Rijo Walker, previously just a special teams standout. During the Cavaliers’ current three-game losing streak, Coach Mike London had already instituted changes to the team’s wide receivers and offensive line.

“I feel like throughout the past few weeks guys have caught passes on us and we’ve been in pretty good position. Just haven’t come up with them,” said Harris.

Poindexter said part of the problem is the defense lacks “big whackers on the back end that can just throw their shoulder into a guy and they’ll fall on the ground.” He talked this week about how missed tackles turned routine Maryland plays into explosive moments. The Terrapins had seven plays of at least 30 yards last week.

Walker is “a good tackler. He a little bit more of the mold of myself really,” added Poindexter, an all-American safety at Virginia in 1997.

The Cavaliers are still on pace to have far more sacks and tackles for a loss than a year ago and they remain one of the ACC’s best defenses on third down. But Virginia announced Thursday that junior cornerback Demetrious Nicholson (toe) and defensive tackle Brent Urban (lower leg) will both be out because injury. In their place, true freshmen Tim Harris and Donte Wilkins, an All -et from Potomac (Va.) High, will see expanded roles. Harris performed well, according to London and Poindexter, in his first extensive action of the year last week in College Park.

Corralling Duke quarterback Anthony Boone, meanwhile, will be easier said than done considering he ran for 41 yards and passed for 212 yards in the Blue Devils’ 42-17 pounding of Virginia last year. Boone returned from injury last week and completed 31 of 38 passes for 298 yards and three touchdowns in Duke’s 35-7 win over Navy.

Here are three more themes to watch as the Cavaliers try to break their three-game losing streak with the first of three straight home games at Scott Stadium.

Streaks worth ending

Virginia enters Saturday’s tilt against Duke with its season teetering on the brink of disaster after three-straight losses. But the Blue Devils have been a thorn in the Cavaliers’ side under Coach David Cutcliffe, with wins in four of the past five meetings between the two schools, including last year’s 42-17 victory in Durham, N.C. “It doesn’t matter that it’s Duke,” Virginia offensive lineman Jay Whitmire said this week. “We need a win to get back on track.”

Freshman learning curve

Virginia Coach Mike London has spent the past two weeks shuffling his depth chart, most notably using freshmen at wide receiver and right tackle going forward. Those changes have been successful and this week London has turned his attention to the defense, where freshmen Tim Harris and Donte Wilkins, an All Met from Potomac (Va.) High will see extensive playing time. Junior cornerback Demetrious Nicholson (toe) and defensive tackle Brent Urban (lower leg) will miss Saturday’s game due to injury.

Running with the Devils

A new-look offensive line paved the way for Virginia to rack up 242 rushing yards a week ago against Maryland, and tailbacks Kevin Parks, Khalek Shepherd (Gwynn Park) and Taquan Mizzell could be in for another big day against a Duke defense that has allowed at least 150 rushing yards the past four games. The hope is that a balanced attack will allow the Cavaliers to improve in the red zone, where four of their six trips resulted in field goals last week.

Mark Giannotto is a Montgomery County native who covers high school sports for The Washington Post. He previously covered Virginia and Virginia Tech football for five years.



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